I walk down the street pushing a dying man in a wheelchair.
As I walk, I’m thankful for the darkness around us. At least in the dark, no one can see me struggle with my emotions. None of the passing strangers will wonder why I am so close to breaking into tears. I veer left, aiming away from the circle of light from a store front. Behind me strolls the man’s wife, as well as another woman. They chat about this and that, oblivious to my struggle. It feels as though I’m pushing someone towards the gas chamber. Of course, we’re only heading towards the hotel; but at this hotel, I’d say good-bye for the last time.
I’ve only ever really mourned three deaths in my life, though I have attended about a dozen funerals. Two friends and a grandfather were all the true losses I’ve had. They all died while I was far away. There were no good-byes, no last visits. Now that middle age approaches, I’ve been more introspective, more thoughtful as to how these things work. Now, last good-byes cut more deeply, force more questions.
Why do all things end? Why must I learn to say good-bye? No, that’s not the question; “How do I say good-bye?” is what I really mean. Is there a lesson here, something I am supposed to learn? Perhaps if I realize that the only eternal thing is God, this departure will be easier. Maybe there’s no lesson, nothing to teach me how to leave my friend. Perhaps this is just an aspect of life, like gravity. Things going up always come down. Every beginning has an ending. Every hello its own good-bye.
And so we walk onward. In my head, I cannot wait to arrive at the lobby. The beautiful stone sidewalk causes terrible discomfort for my friend. He’s hurting, suffering. To serve him is to take the direct route to smoother flooring. In my heart, though, I dread our arrival. To enter the marble-floored lobby is, in essence, to exit his life. Once we arrive, we say our good byes and I leave; I just can’t stand it. Boy, am I glad it is dark.
It’s no secret I don’t hear well. I hear some things, but not what most folks hear. As I walk along, the only sounds that interrupt my thoughts come from the passing buses. I guess people are talking. I suppose music is filtering from the stores. All I really see is the balding head in front of me, all I feel is anguish.
And then, she laughs. From right behind me, in the silence left by a lack of buses, I hear laughter. Not a chuckle or a giggle. I hear an amazing, full-throated unabashed peal of laughter. She laughs because something is funny. She laughs because the world is good. It is the laughter of a woman filled with joy. It is also the laughter of a woman about to lose her husband. She laughs again. And again.
Here I am, mourning someone who’s not yet dead. Here I am, thankful no one sees my tears. Here I am, glad my anguish is hidden. And yet, this woman’s life is about to undergo a fundamental shift. Her life will change as dramatically as it did when she said “I do” or when the doctor declared “It’s a boy.” She will experience loss greater than anything I have ever experienced, and yet….she laughs.
Oh. Dear. God. How does she do it? What’s so funny that she can set aside her coming loss and laugh so freely? Something back there is more humorous than her grief is painful. What could it be? Then I realize that it doesn’t really matter.
In her laughter, I find the strength to smile.
I smile because no matter how life, or death, may assault us, there is yet joy in the world. Somehow, she has discovered this. She found in God, a real living personal God who exists above all things and yet lives within us, the hope and love and faith she will need to get through the day. And not simply survive, but to laugh as well. Her coming loss did not cause her to question how all of this worked. Instead, she seemed to have grasped what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote, “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”
Our arrival at smooth lobby floor is welcome. Our good-byes are brief. I leave the hotel, again thankful for the dark. And yet, even then I leave smiling.